Smoking foods as a means of seasoning is a new trick for many chefs, but for Bart Vaughan it’s as familiar as the Tennessee Smoky Mountains that surround his 36-seat, dinner-only restaurant, known as the Foothills Milling Company. A native son, Vaughan grew up on smoked foods, learning all the necessary do-it-yourself hot- and cold-smoking skills, and even once earned a spot with a competition barbecue team. But make no mistake, the restaurant he operates in Maryville, Tennessee, with his wife Whitney, the pastry chef, and brother Tommy, front-of-the-house manager, is no barbecue joint.
Vaughan’s menu includes appetizers such as Vidalia Onion and Goat Cheese Tart and House-Cured Salmon on Grilled Flatbread. Entree offerings range from low-country shrimp and grits to apple-wood–smoked Smithfield pork tenderloin. Blending tradition and modern trends, the restaurant is an upscale, fine-dining room, where house-smoked meats, fish, and poultry are the chef’s specialty.“Our menu melds Southern regional cuisine with global influences and classical cooking techniques,” Vaughan explains. “Smoking has been used in the South since humans first inhabited the region. Some of our menu items, like our salmon cooked on cedar planks as Native Americans once cooked their fish, honor that tradition.” Other dishes use uncommon ingredients and classic techniques to provide customers with a different spin on Southern cooking.
“Because our customers relate to smoked menu items and are familiar with the long, slow-cooked flavor of barbecue, they’re more likely to try a smoked dish that is unfamiliar to them,” he says. His dry-rubbed and hickory-smoked lamb ribs served with a mustard sauce are a good example. The appetizer uses traditional smoking techniques, North Carolina sauce, and Memphis-style dry seasoning on a cut of meat that is not a regional staple.Vaughan does all his own smoking, including making tasso, sausages, and other items to put on his charcuterie platter, which features an assortment of smoked meats and sausages, pickled vegetables, and fresh bread. Priced at $10 to $11 for a generous portion, because the chef uses meat trimmings for the sausages, it’s a profitable item.
Time and Temperature
Out of eight entrees on the menu at Foothills Milling Company, two or three usually feature smoked meats. Vaughan does more cold smoking than hot smoking because although “hot smoking provides wonderful flavor, it also cooks the meat. I don’t like to use a lot of precooked ingredients,” he explains. Vaughan does recommend hot smoking large cuts of meat such as brisket, ribs, whole ducks and chickens, and pork shoulder.
The chef usually hot smokes one pork shoulder a week, not for an entree, but to make appetizers such as Chinese pancakes served with pulled pork and a tangy sauce of scallion, ginger, tomato molasses, blood orange, and vinegar. The seven-inch pancakes are served cut in half on a mound of rice for $7.50. He sometimes varies the dish by using hot-smoked duck. Vaughan also hot smokes peppers and tomatoes to use in sauces, and smokes onions for flavored butter. The pork smokes for about 14 hours; the vegetables spend a lot less time in the smoker.Vaughan hot smokes at temperatures between 200[°]F and 300[°]F. For pork, he uses a blend of apple, oak, and hickory logs. For poultry and seafood, he recommends oak and apple wood. “The hickory is too assertive a flavor for these items,” he claims. He chooses his wood for both flavor and economy. “We cut our own hickory and oak and trade off a free meal for wood, when local apple growers are trimming their trees. Using locally cut wood reduces our costs dramatically.”
On the fine points of hot smoking, Vaughan declares, “Haste makes waste when it comes to hot cooking . . . it has to be a slow process over low heat. You don’t want the wood to catch on fire and produce black smoke or orange flames. They produce tars, which give the meat a bitter taste.” Because there are no exact rules for how long it will take a piece of meat to cook, he relies on feel. “With pork shoulder, if you can twist the bone one-quarter to one-third turn, you know you’re right there. It’s the same for duck,” the chef adds, “When you can twist the bone, it’s done.” Because many people tend to overcook when hot smoking, Vaughan recommends brining the meat first to help retain moisture during cooking. “Brining does give some meats a mild ham-like taste,” he says. “I generally like that, but I wouldn’t brine something like a whole rib eye.”
Begin with Brining
Brining is essential when cold smoking not only to preserve the moisture in lean cuts of pork, poultry, and seafood, but also to prevent the growth of bacteria. “I cold smoke at 86°F or lower because at higher temperatures, some items, especially fish, will start to cook. But that low temperature puts meat in the danger zone,” Vaughan says. To prevent harmful bacteria growth, he adds sodium nitrite to his brining mixture of kosher salt, dark brown sugar, and black pepper.
Vaughan uses a mixture of apple wood, dry corncobs, and oak sawdust for cold smoking. Although he can purchase a 50- to 60-pound block of sawdust for $30, “that adds up,” he remarks. To save money, he scouts out local furniture and cabinetmakers. “Usually, they’ll give you the sawdust just to get it out of their shop.” The key with using sawdust is to keep it smoldering, rather than burning. Vaughan lightly mists the sawdust with water and uses a hotel pan filled with ice in the smoker to keep the temperature down. Trout is a favorite of Vaughan’s for cold smoking. He smokes whole farm-raised trout for about 30 minutes to give it a light, delicate flavor, turning up the heat at the very end to lightly cook the fish. He keeps the trout in the cooler until he’s ready to turn it into appetizers, such as his Smoked Trout Cannelloni with Asparagus Cream. To prepare the dish, the chef combines the trout with cream cheese, heavy cream, and seasonings, then rolls five-inch, house-made wonton wrappers around the mixture and cooks them in a convection oven topped with a cream sauce made from asparagus trimming. He serves two cannelloni as an appetizer for $10. Smoking his own trout makes this a very cost effective dish because he pays $3.85 a pound for the fresh trout instead of the going rate for smoked trout, $7.99 a pound.
Apple-wood–smoked pork chops are included among Vaughan’s most popular entrees. The dish begins with one and one-half inch thick Niman Ranch, center-cut, bone-in chops, which he buys for $4.69 each. He brines them in the cooler for 48 hours, then cold smokes them for four hours. At service, he grills the chops and serves them with white cheddar grits soufflé, haricot vert, and a black coffee barbecue (BBQ) sauce for $24. For variety, Vaughan sometimes substitutes pork tenderloin for the chops.
Salmon, chicken, and even rack of lamb are also cold smoked in Vaughan’s homemade smoker, which he calls “a work in progress.” Thrifty when it comes to equipment, the chef remarks, “I try to be creative . . . commercial cold smokers can cost as much as $10,000 to $20,000. Hot smokers are expensive too.” To cut down on costs, he put an offset smoke box on the side of an old convection oven to make a cold smoker and uses a basic barbecue set up with a firebox on one end for hot smoking.
“You don’t need to make a large investment to begin smoking in house, and the effort is more than worthwhile,” he insists. “The fact that we do our own cold smoking gives [our food] an artisanal quality. And the advantage of doing all my own smoking is that I have total control over flavor, save money, and can offer a product unique to my restaurant.”
Bart’s Smoking Sense
-You can smoke practically anything. Think outside the box to create items unique to your restaurant.
-Use local woods. People are familiar with the flavors, and they cost less.
-Brine to maintain moisture and for food safety when cold smoking.
-Don’t run out and buy the most expensive smokers on the market. See what you can create yourself.
-Remember that haste makes waste; hot smoking takes time.
Foothills Apple-Wood–Smoked Pork Chop with Black Coffee BBQ Sauce
by Bart Vaughan, chef and co-owner, Foothills Milling Company, Sevierville, Tennessee
Yield: 24 servings
Kosher salt 1 /2 cup
Dark brown sugar 2 cups
Coarsely ground black pepper 1/4 cup
Sodium nitrite (6.25% solution) 1/4 cup
Water 1 gal
Center-cut pork loin chops (15 ounces each) 24
Black Coffee BBQ Sauce:
Guajillo chiles 20
Black coffee, double strength 2 cupsKetchup 1 (#10) can
Red wine vinegar
3 cups Brown sugar 3 cups
Molasses 1 qt
Worcestershire sauce 1 cup
Yellow onion, diced fine 2 qts
Guldens mustard 1/2 cup
Dark roast coffee beans 1 cup
1. Dissolve first five ingredients in pot over low heat, stirring frequently.2. Chill brine to 36[°]F and add chops. Brine chops for 48 hours in walk-in.
3. Remove chops from brine and cold smoke with nine parts apple wood to one part corncobs for 4 hours. Refrigerate chops until needed.4. To make BBQ sauce, rehydrate chiles in hot water for one hour. Strain chiles and puree in blender with just enough water to puree.
5. Mix puree with all remaining ingredients, except coffee beans, and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in coffee beans; let cool 1 hour. Strain through large china cap and store in cooler.6. At service, grill chops to order. Serve with warmed Black Coffee BBQ Sauce.
At Foothills, this dish is served equally well with a Shiraz, Grenache, or an oaky Chardonnay.
Smoked Trout Cannelloni with Asparagus Cream
by Bart Vaughan, chef and co-owner Foothills Milling Company, Sevierville, Tennessee
Yield: 20 servings
Asparagus ends and trimmings 2 lbs
Heavy cream (40%) 1 qtHalf & Half 1 qt
Salt and white pepper to taste Roux to tighten as needed
Cream cheese 1 1/4 pounds
Heavy cream (40%) 1/4 cup
Lemon juice 1 Tbsp
Minced onion 3/4 cup
White pepper 1 /2 tsp
Kosher salt 1/ 2 tsp
Smoked trout (boned) 3 pounds
Pasta sheets ( 3" × 3"), cooked 40
Dried tomato for garnish
1. To make asparagus cream, mix first three ingredients in saucepan and simmer until asparagus ends are tender. Puree in blender until smooth. Return to saucepan and bring to a simmer.
2. Season to taste and tighten with roux until sauce coats spoon. Strain through china cap.
3. To make cannelloni, beat all ingredients except trout and pasta sheets in mixer until well blended. Break trout apart with hands and add to mixing bowl.
4. Mix on low speed until trout is blended with cream cheese mixture. Take care not to puree trout by overmixing.
5. Roll 1/3 cup trout mixture inside each pasta sheet. Place in small gratin dishes and top with 2 ounces asparagus cream.
6. Cook in convection oven until hot. Finish under broiler. Garnish with dried tomato.
Chef Vaughan recommends serving this appetizer with a fresh Sauvignon Blanc.